Two Gents Act 1, Scene 1 – Stratford-upon-Avon, England – THE VERY BEGINNING

And……we’re off!  The very first installment of Shakespeare Aloud.  Thanks to Dr. Nicholas Walton, scholar, writer and professor at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust here in Stratford, Yorick and I have been given permission to film my first scene of the first Shakespeare play in the canon, right outside his actual birthplace.

Nick and I discussed filming in the house proper, but I have committed to read the whole canon in public, and though my definition of that is minimum one person (and that would be Nick), I feel it’s much more in the spirit of WS to expose this project to as many perplexed people as possible.  As it was, there was a very large group of Chinese tourists, who grouped behind the camera for several minutes of the scene, then cross behind me into the house, taking pictures and sneaking back looks along the way.   I had my first audience – and I suppose it’s possible they didn’t understand a word I said. 

At the end of this clip, Nick pans around so you can see the lovely gardens here in Shakespeare’s backyard, as well as the handsome marble sign of The Shakespeare Centre.

Why 2 Gents first?

Which play Shakespeare wrote first is, like so many other debates in WS scholarship, a bone of significant contention within Shakespeare circles.  Stanley Wells, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on all things Shakespeare and a colleague of Nick’s at the Trust, lists Two Gents as first, which would indicate he is of the camp that believes the first extant text of the play (dated 1594) is indeed a revised copy.  Added to many other considerations regarding the other contenders including Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, and any of the three the Henry VI plays, Two Gents gets the dubious prize (‘early’ with WS too often connotes immature, as if by definition, which I find is occasionally dismissive of the early plays).  Two Gents is first mentioned in Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia in 1598 as one of his finest comedies thus far.

The Scene

Summary:  Valentine says goodbye to his best friend Proteus before embarking for Milan.  At his exit, Proteus shares with the audience his love for Julia and his discomfort with the distinction between Valentine’s pursuit of honor and his own pursuit of love.  Speed, Valentine’s surly servant enters, who after a good deal of horsing around (and a little sheeping around as well) finally tells Proteus that he did deliver Proteus’s love letter to Julia.


The scene begins with 62 lines of polished, musical verse outlining the banter between two best friends and introducing many of the themes of the play, almost like an overture introducing major elements (character, style, theme with previews of variation) all with a cheerful sense of setting the scene in a relatively low stakes environment.

“Love” is mentioned 16 times in the first 65 lines, which if anyone’s keeping score at home is one mention every four lines in the first exchange of the play between the two major characters.  Do I smell a theme?  Indeed, ‘love’ appears more often in 2 Gents than anywhere in the canon – this from a play where love is the most problematic of feelings and the cause of much more anxiety than benefits…

We have shared lines, a great deal of actors picking up on each other’s words (boots, love, as good writer’s say, fool vs wise).  They are listening to each other, gently one-upping each other, teasing and bantering to show a very good-natured fraternal friendship.

For this ‘earliest’ of plays, the verse is very well constructed.  Breathing at the end of the line, (or every two lines in some cases), should be the norm here.  Dactyls are common aberrations to the iambic pentameter, giving the speech noticeable lilts – when the meter is broken it’s done in definitively musical ways, not ways intended to break up the verse:

Valentine     ‘Tis true; for you are over-boots in love

And yet you never swam the Hellespont.

Proteus         Over the boots?  Nay, give me not the boots.

Valentine     No, I will not , for it boots thee not.

Proteus                                                                                 What?

Valentine     To be in love, where scorn is bought with groans,

Coy looks with heart-sore sighs, one fading moment’s mirth

With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights.

Here’s a typical example of a significant choice the actor must make to help an entire passage come to clarity.  Valentine’s first two lines here are regular – Proteus starts in with the first beat stressed (‘O-ver’) – the irregularity speaks to his reaction to Valentine’s accusation that he’s over the boots in love.  A gag is starting to form, and indeed, ‘Nay give me not the boots’ is then gratifyingly regular.  The important choice would come on the next line – where to put the stress.  Does the actor stress ‘No’ and ‘will’ or instead choose ‘I’ and ‘not’ – read the whole passage and try to make sense of it.  It’s a shared line with Proteus’s ‘What?’ and the choice affects even more than that.  (The most natural I could come up with, but that keeps the musical ball in the air here, is ‘no, I will NOT, FOR it BOOTS thee NOT.’ – changing the stress pattern in the middle of the line, which can provide an excellent springboard to show the character having the next idea in the moment (‘to be in love’)

Valentine’s follow up – ‘To be in love, where scorn is bought with groans,’ lands as a pleasing, regularly metered bit of homespun wisdom.  But any sense of comfort in a platitude, if it is threatening to form, is just as quickly circumvented by the next 12 syllable line (longer lines generally indicate more emotion, require more breath, or a major interruption of thought).  ‘Coy looks with heart-sore sighs, one fading moment’s mirth / With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights.’  The final line is regular, but loaded with two syllable words that sound like berating trochees.

Breathing on the end of the line allows Valentine to self-interrupt (without a new breath) between ‘heart-sore sighs’ and ‘one fading moment’s mirth’ and allows ‘mirth’ to dangle overhead for a second, as good line endings are wont to do, as the carrot that makes men over the boots in love fall into doting.

Proteus then gets 7 lines to connect with us, the audience.  He introduces the concept of change ‘Thou Julia has metamorphosed me.”  This line shouldn’t earn the extra ‘ed’ stress at the end, but even so, is very notably the longest line we’ve had so far.  It’s a meal of a word – even just 4 syllables, and carries with it our associations of metamorphosis.  His early admissions to us, who will be his chief confidant throughout, color the previous discourse of love with deeper shades that hint at the darkness to come in this play.

We now drop into Speed mode – and by that I mean we all, Proteus included, now have to deal with Valentine’s servant, Speed, who seems to exist only to befuddle those of any status with his overzealous, blunt, wit.  We get 71 lines of prose with a possible red herring here that bears inclusion in our musical discussion: Speed occasionally makes a stab at verse here, and a few editors have tried to smooth him into verse in moments.

Why editors do this is a bit puzzling.  First of all, lower status folk in Shakespeare often drop into prose, if not nearly always.  He is a bawdy fellow, all the more fitting for a lower prosodic gear, and unlike Valentine and Proteus’s like-minded sparring, Speed is extremely tedious to Proteus, (and possibly to us).  There is a musicality here that doesn’t need to be shoe-horned into any scholarly category – it’s the music of whatever gets us to chuckle.  The scene is likely the first bit that will give us the clear sign that anything is for laughing at here, and if Speed can’t get us to open up a bit, Lance and the ladies will have a tougher time.  The musicality of comedy is its own beast and operates on its own rules – productions would be wise to keep this section trippingly on the tongue, and that does include putting the right stresses on the right words, concepts, syllables, etc. as we must do with verse to elevate Clarity, but the music here is the music of laughter.

To conclude:

63 lines – verse: bon ami banter, shared lines, many antitheses, light one-upsmanship, highly musical verse, ‘love’ every 4 lines.

7 lines – verse: soliloquy coloring ‘love’ and ‘honor’ with shadows.

71 lines – prose:  a typical early Master/Servant scherzo.


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